That’s not easy, considering Roblox has 90 million monthly players, and many of them deliberately try to get around the company’s rules on being civil to each other.
Last year, a child’s game character was sexually violated in the virtual world. Higgins has been working with the teams to ensure such things don’t happen in the future, and she has also been helping with the updating of the company’s guide for parents.
Higgins previously consulted for Roblox, but she was also an advocate who worked from the outside to help companies see the light on reducing trolling and toxic behavior.
Higgins did a fireside chat at Gamelab with Kate Edwards, founder of Geogrify and former head of the International Game Developers Association. Afterward, I caught up with her for an interview.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How long have you been on the job now?
Laura Higgins: I officially joined in January, so still relatively new. I’ve had the opportunity to be over there a few times now and work directly with the team. I’m starting to see some of the things we’ve been working on coming out. We spoke before about the parents’ advice section of the website. That’s going to be launching in the next couple of weeks. That’s very exciting.
GamesBeat: A lot of that was already underway as you arrived, right?
Higgins: Well, we had the tools in place. I don’t think we explained them very well. We’re making it much more acccessible. Bite-sized pieces advice guiding parents through how to put these tools in place. The work I’m doing as well is the conversation starters. Lots of content we’ll put out via my blog. We’ve had quite a few pieces out already.
We’re going to do a lot more social media engagement with parents. Not just Roblox-specific, but online safety more broadly, so that educating around some of those tough topics, like unsigned third-party chat apps as a really good example. I think parents just assume that if they see Roblox, everything is on Roblox. It’s not about criticizing anyone else, but parents need to understand the whole ecosystem. Generally, supporting parents and making them a bit more empowered. That’s all in place.
We’re doing a real focus on well-being as well, both for our player community and also the broader community of parents and educators as well.
GamesBeat: What are some examples of things that parents should know or be aware of, like how their kids could be using other chat programs alongside the game?
Higgins: That’s really important. The overlay feature on Discord, for example, makes it appear very much — unless you understand how Discord works, it makes it look like people are having conversations within Roblox that they’re not. They’re happening somewhere else. Our message to parents is always the same. Spend time with your kids, particularly the younger ones. Talk to them about what they do. Kids want to talk about this stuff. Let them show you. Then you can make an informed decision about whether it’s appropriate or not.
I would suggest most chat apps are not suitable for children, particularly under 13. It’s an adult community and adult conversations happen there, as well as other risks toward children. It’s about parents — we need to help them understand, but they do need to make that bit of effort to be present in their child’s online life.
GamesBeat: Your in-game chat, how is that monitored?
Higgins: We have very strict chat filtering for the younger children. If you use the right date of birth and it says they’re under 13, it’s really quite restricted. Then we make it a little less strict for the older age group. We still don’t allow profanities or bullying speech. No personal information can be shared. Basically it hashes out anything that’s naughty. It has a nice instructional way of saying, “You just tried to put something you shouldn’t in here.” If it’s more serious, if it’s more egregious, then it just won’t appear. In the worst case we may take other sanctions if someone’s really trying to bully or something like that.
GamesBeat: This starts with an automated system looking for particular words?
Higgins: We use a mixture of machine learning and AI and human moderation. It will eventually have oversight, unless it’s basic spam or personal information. That’s automatically blocked out. You couldn’t put, for example, “Follow me on Skype, this is my handle” or “Here’s my email address.” Anything like that would be blocked out. But anything that’s more concerning — we use other technologies around detecting grooming. There’s some software around detecting that sort of speech, and that would always go to a human moderator. Likewise, if things are flagged to us by the community that aren’t picked up by the algorithm, that always goes to human.
GamesBeat: Having been chastised a lot on Twitter, I find that people will deliberately misspell a lot of the words they want to direct at you. Is that a way to get around some of this?
Higgins: I spend a lot of time trying to break the system. I used to do that before I came to Roblox, and I still do. We’re literally updating it every few minutes, every day. We’re very aware. Try to think of every creative spelling you can find, try to swap numbers for letters, spell out words with one letter on each line — with all of those things we try and stay ahead of the curve.
We’re working closely with a lot of safety partners now, geographically, because obviously there are things that might be quite nuanced. In Spain here, for example, there might be some new slang we don’t know. We’re always asking our safety partners to feed that into us, and we’re then making sure our systems are picking up those sorts of more geographical issues.
GamesBeat: With this initiative, are you able to share these systems with each other?
Higgins: Some of it, we use common platforms anyway. Some of the people that make these products, we use the same ones. In the U.K. the National Crime Agency and CEOP have a gaming working group. There’s people like Lego and Jagex and EA and us. We all sit together and have these meetings. We’re at Chatham House and we share — we wouldn’t share personal details about users, but we share good practices. We talk about any trends we’re seeing, particular phrases we’re seeing, or memes coming up. We all share that information. It’s really helpful.
From the police’s point of view, I think they’re reassured that we’re taking this seriously. We’re being very transparent with them as well. And it feels really supportive as a community. For example, Movie Star Planet, their demographic is very similar to ours. It’s younger. It’s quite gentle, but obviously there are potential risks with having that young community. The more we can work together and say, “Ah, recently we’ve heard about this. Have you seen that? Is it something reflective?” We’re moving in the right direction. That collaboration is key, and I think it will continue to be.
GamesBeat: Have you had issues that elevate up to police involvement?
Higgins: It will happen. It does happen. More often than not what tends to happen is we’ll find something in the newspaper that names us, and of course then we go back and there’s no police record. It’s sometimes difficult to unpick. If we don’t have details, we can’t have any right to reply, because there wasn’t a case to begin with. But it doesn’t mean something didn’t happen.
There’s one particular case recently that was highlighted in the U.K. that was around Discord. They made a whole story about this, about the fact that this happened on Roblox, and we said, “It didn’t actually happen here.” They were sharing images, and you can’t share images on Roblox. But at the same time we don’t want to push blame. We take our responsibility very seriously.
We have great links with — obviously in the U.S. we work with NatMEC, who have very strict procedures in place there. We’re members of the Internet Watch Foundation. While we don’t have photographs as such, we’re still sharing intelligence with them. In the U.K. we work with CEOP. Thankfully it’s incredibly rare. We’re always looking to make sure that our systems are as strong as they possibly can be and we’re as reactive as we can be if things happen. But thankfully it’s very rare.
GamesBeat: What happens next for you?
Higgins: We’re excited about our FC Barcelona partnership that came out this week. That was amazing timing. I’ve been working on this for months and had no idea I was coming here. One of the things we’re excited about with that is not only Barcelona celebrating their new kit, and it’s something we can give out free to our users on the platform — we always love to say, “Here’s a treat for you all.” But the fact that it’s really diversity-friendly — we have girls’ outfits. It’s really topical with the World Cup on at the moment. We’re really pushing that, and that’s been lovely.
Obviously, we’re working on some other brand partnerships that hopefully we can tell you about soon. For me, there’s a lot of stuff with our trust and safety advisory board. We’ve had our first meeting with the new board. We have some new members there. INSAFE, do you know INSAFE? They’re part of the European Commission, all the help lines across Europe. The person who oversees that is now on the board, which means we have reach over 32 safer internet centers, which is pretty good. For us, we’re getting our safety messages out, and we’re also hearing from them. It’s all pretty exciting.
We’ve now done our launches in France and Germany. We’re embedding those relationships, rolling out resources, localized resources, and working on partnerships. It’s all really positive.
GamesBeat: How did you first get interested in this? What’s your background?
Higgins: I’ve always worked in safeguarding. I ran physical safeguarding services, working with drug users and homeless people, working in law enforcement. As the internet blew up, my work changed, and it became more and more about that. Online safety was everything. I’ve been a geek and really passionate about — if I love the internet, how do we keep people safer? It developed from there.
I personally like games and always have done. When I was asked to be on the trust and safety board at Roblox two years ago or so, I jumped at the chance. The wonderful thing is — when you make a real big jump like that, from an NGO to industry, what am I going to find? I can truthfully say they do exactly what they say. Integrity at Roblox — I think it’s because so many people are parents. Dave has four kids. He cares.
It’s lovely that our investment in moderation — we have more than 800 moderation staff now around the world, 24/7, local support on the ground. I was having a conversation with a colleague from another organization who said, “That’s loads more than most gaming companies.” But think about our users. We need that. We have the most vulnerable group. We need to keep them safe. There’s a real commitment to doing that. I love it, and I get to play all the time.
Watching it grow, it’s interesting now. We’re seeing — what were our young players, I think before they were kind of drifting off when they were teenagers. We were seen as a bit baby. But we’re aging, so our advertising has become more realistic. We’re listening to the community in terms of what they want. Now we’re starting to see those — the ones that started at eight are still with us at 14 or 15, and that’s lovely. They’re now demonstrating to the next generation coming in.
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.